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Like a Song

I wasn’t a horse girl, not when I started. Riding wasn’t even my idea. I was eight years old, and my mother was brainstorming after-school activities with my best friend’s mother, trying to get us involved in something together. With the bliss of two people ignorant of the driving and dollars that it would eventually demand, they settled on horseback riding. Though I grew up in Oklahoma, a state where some might assume horses can be found on every corner, we lived in the city, and the nearest barn was a long drive. Surely my parents regretted it at some point, but to their credit, they never complained.

My first riding teacher was one Lucille Fancey, the proprietor of a humble operation seemingly held together with wire and spit. It was 1986, and a lesson was ten dollars. Miss Fancey was nearing seventy, with weathered skin and gray hair tucked under a cheery cotton scarf, but she did all the farm upkeep and took no guff, a small-scale force of nature in dust-stained jeans. I found her obituary online as I began to write this essay, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that at the age of two, young Lucille was found petting the belly of the ice-wagon horse – and that she lived to the age of one-hundred. Even as a child myself, I could tell she was fearless, because fearless was something I was not.

I wasn’t a gregarious kid, not a born athlete or competitor. I didn’t like trying new things. But I had my best friend with me, and past a certain point, riding was no longer a new thing; it slowly became our thing, and then my thing. The more I improved, the more I loved it. When I wasn’t at school, I was at the barn, eventually two afternoons a week and all weekend. I rode English hunter-jumper, which is also called show jumping.

Wizenberg, riding her gelding Willy (show name: “That’s the One”) in a Children’s Hunter Jumper show. Photo courtesy of Molly Wizenberg.

A person cannot be faulted for wondering if my mother chose riding instructors for their names. My best and most lasting trainer was Jenny Paisley. Jenny was soft-spoken, kind, and firm, gentle and strong in the saddle, and she dressed in pastels from head to toe. I rode with her from age 11 to 18. I spent my teenage summers criss-crossing the Southwest in the passenger seat of her dually pickup, traveling from a horse show in Kansas City to another outside Denver, from two weeks at the Albuquerque fairgrounds to regional finals in San Antonio. I think it was Jenny who really taught me how to ride, which was also an extended lesson in diligence and care: how to look after a large and powerful animal, to keep my tack clean, to manage nerves and frustration.

I loved the feeling of competence that riding gave me. It was my first taste of physical mastery. My muscles learned what was needed – how to get a horse to lift its hoof by leaning my shoulder into its shoulder; how to mount with control, settling softly in the saddle; how to ask for a canter on the correct lead – and then the knowledge lived in my body, below consciousness, like a nursery rhyme or the lyrics to a favorite song. Riding was my favorite song for a decade, hours and months and years on repeat. But as I prepared to leave for college, I began to feel somehow that I was done with more than just high school. I was moving to California, and I wanted to see what else my life could look like. I wanted to see who else I might be. 

Most everything about my adulthood looks different from my childhood. I live in Seattle; I never went back to Oklahoma. I gave away the last of my tack in my late-thirties, when I helped my mother prepare my childhood home to sell. 

But of course I do still have plenty of photos, and occasionally I pull them out. My daughter began to ask questions. By age seven, she was begging for riding lessons. To be honest, I hoped it wouldn’t stick: unlike my mother, I knew exactly what this would cost. It stuck. Now nine, my daughter has a facility in riding that I remember having to work harder to earn, and she is braver than I ever felt. Watching her, I began to feel a weird sensation, something like a mental itch, the old song lyrics stuck in my head. 

Wizenberg, mid-teens, exiting the schooling ring at the Sandia Classic Horse Show in Albuquerque. Photo courtesy of Molly Wizenberg.

This January, I started riding again. My daughter and I ride the same lesson horse. My teacher is younger than me by almost two decades. My return to riding has been a reversal of how I began: I am doing it because I once loved it, and because my daughter helped me remember that. I don’t know what I’m trying to do. What I do know is how it feels. 

After a quarter-century out of the saddle, I expected to have to think more, to have to work to remember what I knew. I didn’t know that I would remember by feel: how to position the saddle; to press a horse’s ears forward, not back, when I slide the bridle’s headpiece over the poll; or where to wiggle my thumb into a horse’s mouth to make him open for the bit. My leg muscles have more catching-up to do, and I chase each lesson with an epsom-salt bath. But when I’m at the barn, the clock seems to loop back on itself and set down a new layer, accruing vertically like a stack of pancakes. It turns out time is not a one-way road, but a parking-garage spiral.

My daughter takes lessons on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons. For now, my lesson is on Thursday mornings. The barn is forty minutes away, without traffic, but I haven’t minded yet.


Molly Wizenberg is an American chef, entrepreneur, writer and teacher. She began as a chef, co-founding the award-winning Seattle restaurants Delancey and Essex, and as a food writer, namely for the publications Bon Appétit, The Washington Post, and Saveur. Focused on home cooking, Wizenberg uses food as a lens for examining everyday life and relationships. Her blog, Orangette, won a number of awards during its years of activity, including a James Beard Foundation Award. Her latest book, The Fixed Stars, is a memoir about sexuality, divorce, and motherhood. Other bestsellers include A Homemade Life and Delancey.

Wizenberg teaches workshops on memoir and personal narrative, both online and across the US. This summer she will be teaching a week-long generative writing workshop at our Zapata Ranch, focusing on “food as a doorway to memory” inspired by the food and surroundings of the Zapata Ranch.



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